The Kingmaking: Book One of The Pendragon Banner’s Trilogy by Helen Hollick (published by Sourcebooks Landmark 2011; ISBN 978-1402218880). Available at Amazon.
Somehow in writing King Arthur’s Children, I overlooked Helen Hollick’s The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. I would like to remedy that by discussing each of the books in the trilogy in separate blogs, beginning here with the first book The Kingmaking.
Modern Arthurian novels can be divided up between those that seek to be truly historical and those that are vaguely historical with fantasy elements. Hollick’s retelling is purely historical. There is no Merlin and no magic in this book, and the same is true of the succeeding two books.
The Kingmaking begins with Vortigern ruling Britain and Uthr Pendragon seeking to overthrow him. When Uthr is killed, Arthur eventually takes his place and the rest of the story will ultimately lead to the event of the book’s title. Anyone who reads an Arthurian novel basically knows what’s going to happen since there is a general structure to the legend that influences all modern fiction writers of Arthurian lore, but the legend has room to stretch and Hollick does her fair share of stretching within the legend’s boundaries while retaining her historical focus on what may have been likely to happen, much of it based in historical research and theories by Arthurian scholars.
One interesting change Hollick makes centers around Morgause’s role in the novel. Uthr is married to Morgause’s sister Igraine, but Morgause is Uthr’s mistress on the side. Morgause has had many daughters by Uthr but she has always exposed them to die. Morgause despises Arthur, not realizing until Uthr has died that he is Uthr’s son, but thinking he is only Uthr’s bastard-born nephew. Morgause’s hatred for Arthur causes her later to attack him sexually. The result is not quite what readers might expect, but it deeply shapes Arthur’s future character.
Arthur later admits that his disgust over what Morgause did to him has resulted in how he mistreats women. He is not a gentle man, but rather one who takes women whenever he chooses, determined not to let them exert any feminine power over him. He impregnates a slave girl (p. 160), and he later says he knows he has many bastard daughters (p. 220). Arthur ends up marrying Vortigern’s daughter, Winifred, as a political alliance, and by her he has a sickly daughter who dies soon after birth (p.313). Arthur, however, hates Winifred and is in love with Gwenhwyfar throughout the book.
Eventually, Vortigern dies and his son Vortimer assumes the kingship, but Arthur is on the road to gaining it for himself. During this time, he abandons Winifred and marries Gwenhwyfar. Both women then have sons by him. Gwenhwyfar’s son Llacheu is born first (but in what we would call a bigamist marriage today) while Winifred’s son Cerdic is born a few weeks later. Both women want to see their own sons acknowledged as Arthur’s heir. Winifred threatens to complain to the Pope to make sure Cerdic is acknowledged, but Winifred is half-Saex (Vortigern’s wife Rowena had been the daughter of the Saex leader Hengest) while Llacheu is fully British born. Arthur is disgusted at the thought of having a partially Saex child and lets Winifred know the British people will rally around Llacheu when the time comes.
That Arthur should have sons is unusual but not a new idea as I’ve shown throughout King Arthur’s Children. Llacheu is a traditional son of Arthur in the early Welsh legends and is usually attributed to being Gwenhwyfar’s son as well. More surprising is that Cerdic is credited as Arthur’s son. Hollick, in her “Author’s Note,” states that she is not the first to suggest Cerdic (who is a historical King of the Saxons) was Arthur’s son, but I believe she is the first novelist to do so. The idea was originally suggested by Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe in The Discovery of King Arthur (1985). [see the family tree for Ashe’s theory at http://www.childrenofarthur.com/. Finally, years after Morgause sexually forced herself upon Arthur, she is revealed to have had a daughter named Morgaine. Hollick does not reveal whether the daughter is Uthr or Arthur’s, but it’s a good bet it is Arthur’s daughter considering she exposed her other daughters. While Morgaine is a girl and not likely to inherit the throne, no doubt Morgause has kept her alive to serve as a way to hurt Arthur down the road. (Having not yet read the second book in the series, at this point I am pondering whether Morgaine is really a he and the future Mordred while Morgause is hiding the child’s sex while biding her time. My discussion of the next two books will reveal the details.)
While I was a bit put off by Hollick’s writing style, primarily the way she uses verbs in her sentences, I did find The Kingmaking to be entertaining reading, both for its depictions of Arthur’s children as well as the rather brutal and rough Arthur. I did not find Arthur likeable, but I did like Gwenhwyfar, and I am curious to see how the story will turn out. In her “Author’s Note,” Hollick states that because Lancelot and Merlin were the creations of later twelfth century Norman romancers, readers will not find them in her books since she wants to provide a historical portrait of what could have actually happened. While Merlin was actually established in Welsh tradition so I don’t understand this reasoning (other than perhaps Hollick saw no use for Merlin in a historical rather than fantasy novel), if there is to be no Lancelot, then I am curious to see how Camelot’s fall will be brought about. Will Gwenhwyfar find herself another lover, or will Morgause’s plotting be sufficient to bring about Arthur’s downfall? It’s on to reading Book II: Pendragon’s Banner to find out.
For more information about Helen Hollick and her Arthurian novels, visit www.HelenHollick.net
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com